Columbia University, previously listed number 2 Best College in the nation by the U.S. News & World Report, has been unranked. According to The New York Times, Columbia declared its withdrawal from the 2023 ranking after being unable to verify submitted data.
In March, Dr. Michael Thaddeus, a mathematics professor at Columbia, raised questions about some of the numbers supporting Columbia’s ranking. These statistics included the number of “instructional full-time and part-time faculty, the number of full-time faculty with the highest degree in their field, the student-faculty ratio, undergraduate class size and education expenditures.” As reported by Anemona Hartocollis of The New York Times, U.S. News then asked Columbia to substantiate their numbers, a request Columbia was not able to fulfill in a satisfactory manner, despite originally defending its data.
U.S. News is one of the leading news sources known for its college rankings, producing various lists that help “cement the established reputation of the schools.” Each university’s ranking differs across sources, including Forbes and The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education, due to various factors being given different weight. Command Education has previously analyzed leading sources for college rankings, and U.S. News was found to consider student selectivity and academic reputation to a greater extent.
Of course, this isn’t the first time doubts have been raised about misleading or dubious data from college rankings. U.S. News has experienced controversies in the past few years with USC and UC Berkeley, while the President of Princeton University wrote an op-ed about why college rankings are problematic. U.S. News lacks an independent auditing system; “U.S. News has acknowledged that it relies on universities to vet their submitted data, which can be extensive, and that it does not have the resources to conduct independent audits,” explains Hartocollis.
“What is clear is there’s no third-party vetting,” Dr. Thaddeus told The New York Times. “At some point there has to be third-party auditing since these data are so important and so many people are making final decisions based upon the data. It won’t do to say these data are self-reported and there’s no way to check them.”
Columbia University remains on some of US News’ rankings. The site explains that graduate schools and programs, for example, remain ranked because the “institution reported data on them through separate processes.” Columbia also remains ranked in specific categories including majors, first-year experience, and most innovative schools because “those rankings are based entirely on ratings from top officials at other universities and departments and did not incorporate data reported by Columbia.”
While college rankings can be helpful, it is also important for students to conduct their own research into the universities they are interested in applying to. Beyond ranking, all students must prioritize different factors that reflect their needs and goals when creating their college lists. You can find a complete guide to creating a balanced college list, here.